The Sound of Resilience

Joseph is the name three singing sisters from Oregon/USA have given themselves. They have released four albums with unique and timeless songs that range from atmospheric folk music to power pop with a hint of rock – the latest is called The Sun and is about mindfulness, resilience and healing.

„I thought I was the light switch you turned on / But I am the sun.” Bang! Finally, lyrics that stick with you. Striking, clunky and inspiring in the best sense of the word. They are by the American band Joseph and can be heard in The Sun, the title track of Joseph’s fourth album which was released in the spring of 2023. In The Sun, a person frees themselves from the bonds of a seemingly healthy relationship and begins to shine. The person in the song thought that their constantly depressed mood was “normal” and looked for faults only in themselves, without realizing that the other person in the relationship was primarily concerned with feeling superior: „Well, you wanted me small / So you could feel like someone at all / And I played along / And normalized, telling myself I was wrong.“ But now something has changed. Suddenly, “Feeling good doesn’t feel bad anymore” and the unfair game stops: “I’m done playing a game that can’t be won.” The motif of the light switch that crops up in the main lyrics seems strange, but was chosen deliberately: It accentuates not just the artificial glow that the person in the song has long taken for granted, but also being instrumentalized and used. The person in the song now knows that they are not just some switch the other person pulls to create an artificial glow – they are a star shining brightly on their own!

Of course the assumption is that this song is primarily about a romantic relationship. But the lyrics are kept so general that the dynamics described can also be applied to other relation-ships: those between children and parents, between team members and supervisors, or more generally, between members of a group. And anyone who has gradually grown tired of euphoric self-assertiveness hits like Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, Cher’s Strong Enough or I’m Still Standing by Elton John, might discover an understated alternative in the hymnal-optimistic Joseph song The Sun.

What makes the song worth listening to, aside from the pointed lyrics and captivating melody, is the soulful performance and the unusual people behind it. Joseph is a trio that is already somewhat well-known in the United States, but tends to fly under the radar in the rest of the world. They are the twin sisters Allison and Meegan Closner and their half-sister Natalie Closner-Schepman, who is four years older. Together, they bring harmonies to the stage which are almost indescribable and which only such an unconventional group of sisters can pull off. And we’re not talking about clinical perfection, i.e. an artfully smooth but ultimately soulless fusion of voices, but a very special overall sound that each singer enriches with individual nuances. Natalie Closner-Schepman isn’t just a vocalist, but also “the one with the guitar” and the spokesperson in interviews. She originally tried her hand as a solo singer-songwriter and then, when things weren’t taking off, persuaded the no less talented Meegan and Allison to join her in a band. The name of the trio? Well, Joseph is a town in Oregon, the state the three are from, and Joseph was the name of their beloved grandfather – sometimes it can be that simple and down-to-earth. For almost a decade the soulful sisters have been offering up everything from atmospheric folk music to power pop, while effortlessly integrating elements of country and rock, but without allowing themselves to be pinned down to a specific genre. What they do has a timeless quality. Their music is so rich with beguiling melodies, unusual harmonies and great lyrics, their performance so charismatic, that Joseph should have been superstars long ago. But they aren’t. They are probably just … too idiosyncratic.

It starts with the way they present themselves. They usually go onstage seemingly without make-up and in casual clothes. And when they do “dress up” it looks more old-fashioned, like grandma’s birthday or a school prom, than in the style of “real” pop stars. There are flashes of rock glamour here and there, but on the whole you can’t help but get the impression that these sisters are just having fun, perhaps even self-deprecatingly putting on something of a show so they can ultimately focus on the only thing they really want to do: go out and sing.

This is why, although there are a few “official videos” of the trio’s songs, these seldom seem to be lavishly produced and, it must be said, are also rarely very riveting. Much more exciting are the countless live or unplugged clips of Joseph circulating on the internet: The three women can be seen standing somewhere in the countryside, in cramped studios or in auditoriums, stores or libraries, performing their songs in a raw lo-fi sound. Sometimes they seem so immersed in their music that you find yourself holding your breath, even when watching them on your device. As a result, the ending of every Joseph song on the sometimes lavishly arranged studio albums with a band line-up – which are well worth listening to – is properly composed, i.e. it never fades out. Joseph’s songs are self-contained compositions for live performances – they get to the point in every respect.

Yes, I can really rave about this band. But from all the exceptional characteristics described above, it’s easy to circle back to songs like The Sun. Because just like the person in this song frees themselves from negative influences and begins to shine from within, the band’s development and approach also reflects its will to resist, above all to remain true to itself, to avoid artificiality, even self-deception and to not betray its own artistic aspirations. In interviews, Joseph talks openly about insecurities, self-doubt and fears, about a family dynamic that was not always harmonious, about successes, difficult partnerships and failures – and about personal development, for which they also sought therapeutic help.

Some earlier songs were, in fact, already about intense relationship work, self-assertiveness and empowerment. The 2023 album The Sun now documents a re-emergence of the band and is almost entirely about “more-ness”, as the protagonists call it: about recognizing that you are “more” than you think you are – and even more than what society, your personal environment and your partner want to reduce you to. So the ten songs on the album are something like the sound of resilience, with unusual lyrics like the following, which come from the constantly rising and falling song Waves Crash: „There’s no need to define / How I measure up next to anyone / Or how well I stayed in the lines / I’m a tall, tall tree reaching up in the breeze / All I have to do is breathe / I’m a limb of goodness in motion / (…) / You wouldn’t tell the flower it was made of sin / You know it’s good just for being / What if, what if I’m not made of sin? / What if, what if I’m lightning?“ No, life isn’t about comparing yourself to others and fitting in. It’s about existing freely – like a tree or a flower, as a natural being, without guilt and with good intentions. Wow, that makes you sit up and take notice again. But it’s a disarming perspective. With a surprising final question: “What if I am lightning?”

Mindfulness, resilience, empowerment – these are the buzzwords of our time. Many pop stars use them too, especially female ones. But what American stars in particular are selling as “female empowerment” isn’t always convincing: Some stars who are living in the lap of luxury thanks to countless hits in the charts, and who have unlimited financial resources, suggest that you can simultaneously be a superstar, successful pop entrepreneur, sex symbol and a perfect mother, too. Other stars present themselves as especially tough and independent, but try to conceal the fact that their crude lyrics and glamorous looks, which have been enhanced by cosmetic interventions, fuel entire industries – and, even more, fulfil the expectations of heterosexual men. This all sells well, but creates ideal images which are questionable, if not downright unattainable – and which ultimately widen the gap between female artists and fans.

The Closner sisters, on the other hand, are neither models, nor are they desperately trying to be so. They seem to be focused only on their songwriting, authentic, approachable, sometimes weird and vulnerable. They interact on equal footing with their audience. This low-key, almost “normal” approach and the ultimately too complex messages are probably what have prevented them from achieving international stardom so far, even though songs like White Flag reached number one in the billboard-“Adult Alternative Airplay”-charts in October 2016. “Burn the white flag!” goes the rousing chorus. And of course it’s all about not surrendering. However, the opponents are neither personal or political enemies nor any sinister villains, but the skeptical voices and the fear of failure that prevent you from doing what you actually want to do.

In Fighter, a similarly catchy song from 2019, Joseph put their very own spin on a common theme of self-assertiveness. Contrary to all pop conventions, here it’s not the person in the song who is celebrating themselves as an uncompromising fighter for survival. No, the narrator has been fighting for love for a long time, but now also demands that the other person does not retreat, but is just as committed to fighting to save the relationship: „Don’t keep yourself from me (…) Don’t lie this time / I need a fighter / You’re my bright side / I want it brighter / Don’t leave me in the dark.“ In turn, lyrics like this tie in with Canyon, an irresistible power pop song in which the person in the song prepares to finally get closer to their counterpart, characterized as a country, a mine and an ocean. But this counterpart is so closed off and, figuratively speaking, so “far away” that even a few centimeters distance seems like an unbridgeable canyon: „Can’t get, I can’t get / Can’t get close enough to be close to you / Can’t get, I can’t get there / An inch is a canyon.“ Never getting close enough to really be able to talk about closeness – that sounds like heavy emotional labor.

Which brings us to that key word ‘love’. Yes, love is also an important topic for Joseph – as a central element in families and partnerships, but also as a driving universal force. However, in their deep dive into this universal force, the three avoid throwing around overly naïve and kitschy phrases like “All you need is love” or “Love is the answer”. On the contrary: The person in the song Love Is Flowing, also from the current album The Sun, is realistic – they feel pain, see suffering, but feel powerless and can’t help: „Something’s burning / But I can’t reach it / Phantom limb on fire / Someone’s hurting / But I can’t fix it / And I don’t know how to try.“ Even all-encompassing love, of whose existence and constant flow the person in the song is at least convinced, cannot really be felt, let alone channeled into something that benefits all people. But there is a longing for an entry point, and that at least gives us hope: „Love is flowing, love is flowing, love is flowing, love is flowing / And I wanna get in it.“ The bubbling rhythm and gently undulating vocal line visualize this inspiring river, which one wishes would eventually permeate everyone and everything. These are bittersweet lyrics. They are neither flirtatious nor pretentious. Just apt.

We live in turbulent times. The pandemic, wars and political crises have changed the world, depressing news every day, certainties are dissolving. And one often gets the impression that the people in ones own personal circle are behaving differently, more unpredictably than before. In times like these, bands like Joseph with songs like Fighter, Canyon, The Sun or Love Is Flowing don’t only provide support and comfort, but also energy and confidence. Pop as therapy – for the artists and for the audience.

English translation: Ursula Schoenberg